Crossing the faint line between genius and madness undermines productivity. So does crossing the equally faint line between excellence and perfectionism.
In 1975, I attended a conference of mostly post-doctoral economics students and professors. The featured speaker was F. A. Hayek. He was 76 years old, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics the previous year. He continued to write for another decade, including his final book, The Fatal Conceit, a critique of the dying socialist idea, which was published in 1988. He told us that it is a mistake to strive for perfection when writing a book. It is better to get it into print and then revise it if it goes into a second edition. He could have added, “which very few books ever do.”
I had been given much the same advice a decade earlier by my seminary professor, Cornelius Van Til. He wrote a lot of books over the years, but he also wrote printed materials he called syllabi. They functioned as books. His students read them, although he did not assign them in class — or his books, for that matter. They were sold at the seminary’s book store. Word got out. Other interested readers bought them. There were steady sales of his syllabi for at least forty years. They were typewritten and published in mimeographed form initially, later by offset printing. They were spiral-bound in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He never revised them, which he could have done with any of the later editions. His book publisher would have turned them into typeset books. In 1969, his book publisher at long last did pick up five of them, which I had bought in spiral-bound form, and released them as paperbacks. Yet he still referred to them as syllabi, not books. This tactic enabled him to deal psychologically with his perfectionism demon by means of his syllabi angel, rather than by the more time-consuming method of actually revising the material.
I understood why Hayek and Van Til recommended early publication. The ideas are what count. If you have something to say, put it in print.
Yet their advice is not taken by most college professors, who do not write books. A young professor may take his Ph.D. dissertation and get it published by a university press. He may break up chapters into the format of journal articles, rewrite them slightly, and then submit them. Unless he teaches at a university that has the publish-or-perish requirement, which only the top three dozen do, he never goes to the pain of writing another book.
Meanwhile, a significant percentage of students who advance to the dissertation level never complete their dissertations. This is so common that there is a separate academic category for them: ABD (all but dissertation). These people are the proletariat of higher education. They never receive a full-time offer from a four-year institution. They labor part-time for $20 an hour or less in a community college, probably never receiving full-time faculty status.
What is the problem here? These people have a mental block about handing a finished product to a committee to evaluate on this basis: “This is the best I can do.” They fear rejection. It is easier to drift away and be forgotten as another ABD. It is much the same with people who get their Ph.D. degrees, but then never publish anything except their revised dissertations.
I have described the academic world’s manifestation of the perfectionism affliction. An individual would rather not publish than open himself up to public criticism: from a dissertation committee, then from a book manuscript committee or, post-publication, to a book review in a scholarly journal.
I studied under two men with this affliction. They are both dead now. One was a historian of the Renaissance era, who also taught medieval history. The other taught church history. Both of them read at least half a dozen languages. Both had photographic memories. Both were poor lecturers. Both had no perceptible theory of history by which a student could conclude that one fact is more important than another. Both of them avoided writing books. I believe that their ability to pack their minds with innumerable facts crippled their ability to assess the importance of these facts for a single writing project, and then discipline themselves by the rigors of a theory to drop the vast majority of these facts.
The church historian at an evening church meeting would sometimes challenge the attendees to give him the name of any of the hundreds of hymn writers whose names were in the hymnal. He would then provide a brief history of the person’s life and influence. Yet I never heard him mention even one sentence in class about the importance of hymns in the history of the church. For him, the writers’ names were just data for his collection of facts, like the train schedules he would also memorize just for fun. He had a near-perfect memory. This paralyzed him.
There is one person above all who is so afflicted: Kim Peek. He was the primary model used by Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. Peek reads at astounding speeds: at least 9,000 words per minute. A typical book page has 400 words. He reads the left page with one eye and the right page with the other. He has a recall of better than 98% a few hours later. He has read about 8,000 books this way. When he is finished reading, he puts the book back on the shelf upside-down or spine-side in, so that he will not read it again by accident. He can summarize anything he has read. He cannot assess its importance. You can see several videos of Peek in action here. They are astonishing.
He has not written a book on any of the 15 subjects in which he is considered a fact-master. He cannot even dress himself.
This is perfectionism in action, meaning inaction. We would all like to be able to read at 8,000 words per minute with 98% recall. What a blessing! But if this ability would keep us from applying this mass of information, it would be a curse.
The best academic balance I have seen in combining an enormous mass of facts in multiple academic and cultural fields, combined with theory-governed analysis of these facts, leading to a huge published output, was the career of Murray Rothbard. Close behind him was R. J. Rushdoony, who read more than Rothbard did: a book a day, marked up and notated, for 60 years. His published output was less, though not if you count his sermons. The conservative author, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, read about a dozen languages and traveled on every continent except Antarctica every year, did not write much, but he had a comparable range of topics as Rushdoony had, and in more languages. His equivalent today is the philosopher David Gordon, who does not travel much. His specialty is book reviews. The thought of having Gordon review their books may be what keeps so many scholars from writing books.
I suppose the ultimate master of output was Isaac Asimov, who wrote or edited over 500 books and who is the only author with at least one book in every major category of the Dewey decimal system except for philosophy. Yet he is remembered mainly for his science fiction novels, which are characterized, as he admitted, for being almost entirely dialogue without any action. With a photographic memory and flawless high-speed typing, he could write a non-fiction book in a week. The fact-checkers had almost no corrections to make. For a bibliography of his books, click here — just to see for yourself:
To this output, add his 464 boxes of personal papers. (I have maybe three file drawers.) This is the output I would like to have produced. It is too late now. It was too late the day I was born. But the world has few Isamovs. They remind us of what can occasionally be accomplished, not what should be planned ahead of time.
[I must tell my favorite Asimov story. This is a classic case of motivational manipulation. During his nine months in the Army in 1946, he wanted to avoid the really bad jobs that privates normally get. He could type incredibly fast. So, when he was sent to a new base, on the first day, at 5:05 p.m., he walked into the typing pool’s office and asked the desk sergeant if he could use a typewriter to type a letter to his wife. “Sure, soldier,” was the reply. He put a piece of paper in the machine and started to type, which he did at 80 WPM or so. The sound carried across the empty room. The sergeant was his side within minutes. “Say, soldier, we could use someone like you in this office. Would you like to sign up?” Poor, naive Isaac the grunt said, “I guess so, sergeant. I just got to this post. You’ll have to contact my commanding officer. I haven’t been assigned to anything yet.” Done. He made it to corporal this way.]
Toyota is famous for its policy of constant improvement. It goes to great lengths to persuade workers to suggest ways to improve productivity on the line and anywhere else. It has done this for over five decades. The company got the idea from W. Edwards Deming. Toyota adopted his techniques in 1950 under the assumption that he was an influential American guru in mass production techniques. This was an illusion. He was barely known in the United States until three decades later, after export-driven Japanese firms began cutting into American markets.
Deming had 14 points for improved production. If Woodrow Wilson had adopted Deming’s 14 points rather than his own, the world would be a far safer, richer place. For Deming’s 14 points, click here.
A policy of constant improvement is important for both productivity and reputation. It requires attention to detail. It requires a nearly religious commitment to making things better for the customer. This is the way of the free market. It produces small, barely noticeable progress in any year, yet over decades, the whole world gets changed.
Most people do not possess this outlook. It must be taught to them. They must adopt it, implement it, and see its results. Even then, it is rare. “Good enough” is the great enemy of “better.”
Recently, I went looking for a way to donate to a ministry that digs water wells in Africa. These wells are a low-cost way to change the lives of entire villages. The illness rate falls. So does the young child death rate. Women who spend several hours a day walking to and from water sources can devote this saved time to starting a business or working more efficiently at home. It costs about $5,000 to sink one of these wells.
I searched on Google, using the ministry’s name and the words “water wells.” Up popped a page. I clicked. The page did discuss the project, but it was filled with typographical errors. The apostrophes had been converted to question marks. It had been on-line for two years. Also, the type face was small, making it difficult for visitors to read it. There was a Feedback button, but it was dead.
I sent an email warning of these problems. I got a letter back from the person in charge of the site. He informed me that he knew about these problems.
I am aware of the apostrophe issue. We still have some archive columns like this, since we moved from a Microsoft server to a Linux server. We will continue to clean up the older articles, but given the lack of staff, it could take a bit longer. About 100 pages have been updated so far.
Notice the words, “given the lack of staff.” This is a very large ministry. It raises a lot of money. What these words really mean is “given our lack of interest regarding our Website.” Then he gave a suggestion to me regarding font size.
Ironically, on the sizing issue, we have had complaints that it is too small, so we’ve tried to standardize the page size according to similar websites. One option you may consider is to not use the larger screen resolution, but use the font size setting in the browser to enlarge text. This will keep the width the same, but push the text down the screen.
In short, “the visitor is to blame.” Visitors with a lot of money to donate tend to be older than age 50, and their vision is not good. I set my site’s screen to 800 x 600 pixels — the highest setting — because I do not have a 21-inch screen or 21-year-old eyes.
I will admit that when I re-checked the page, the corrections had been made. But webmasters should be under constant, unrelenting scrutiny by senior managers to keep the sites up to date, without known errors, and — above all — designed for people with disposable income, which means older people.
Webmasters are under age 30, are paid little, and do not have any idea about the needs of older viewers, or color-blind viewers, or viewers’ problems reading white print on a black or dark blue or (unbelievable!) brown backgrounds. They want to have “neat” sites, as defined by other low-paid programmers. Even worse, some of them want to be artsy. They do not understand this law of direct-response marketing: “Artsy reduces sales . . . even when selling art.”
Your potential competitors are not internally driven to improve performance. They are content to just get along. This is suicidal in the long run.
So, you can gain an advantage.
PUSHING THE EDGE OF THE ENVELOPE
I first heard this phrase in the movie, The Right Stuff. This was the description of the mission, supplied by Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who first broke the sound barrier in level flight in 1947. At the time, he had two broken ribs.
This phrase has entered the vocabulary of Americans. It is applied to high-risk innovative projects that might fail, with serious consequences for the people who attempt them. They are usually all-or-nothing projects.
Most of us are rarely if ever directly involved in such projects. This all-or-nothing outlook is contrary to the principle of risk-diversification, which is the recommended policy for most people most of the time.
Entrepreneurs are far more ready to push the edge of the envelope. For the sake of making money or making history, they invest the bulk of their assets in these projects. Entrepreneurs have a unique mentality that persuades them that they can overcome all barriers, and even if they fail, they will rebound. They will regain their wealth and try again, though perhaps in a new field.
Very few people have this outlook. Like people who will not work on high-rise construction projects, most people refuse to put themselves into all-or-nothing situations.
I do not recommend that most of my readers become innovative entrepreneurs who push the edge of an envelope. I do recommend occasionally pushing the edge of a postcard.
I started my newsletter, Remnant Review, in 1974. My wife and I would stuff envelopes on the living room table. I bought a used hand-stamp Addressograph machine for about $200 — about $850 in today’s money. Within two months, I bought a used foot-activated Speed-O-Mat addressing machine for $500. I also bought a World War I-era dog tag stamping machine for a few hundred dollars. With these as our main capital investment, we took the subscription list to over 2,000 people at $45/year in 1978. I took it to 22,000 at $60 over the next year with a direct-mail piece that made me rich.
At no time did I push the edge of the envelope, except literally. I used a low-cost advertising method: running a one-inch display ad in the “Los Angeles Times” that got people to call a gold hot-line. I converted calls into trial subscriptions. It was cheap, and it worked. I invested time and not much money: $700 in answering machines, plus two phone lines. The ads cost $50 each time. It was a great experience.
Here is my marketing strategy. Spend very little on a few words in a small ad, which leads directly to a much larger ad — disguised as valuable information — that lets you explain in detail exactly why the person should buy.
This is a low-cost way to start a new business. Today, the Web offers similar opportunities. A small display ad or a newspaper classified ad or an ad on Google’s AdSense or a business card or a postcard will bring traffic to your site. The idea is to spend very little on the front end — an ad promoting a page on your site — to generate money from the back end.
You do not have to push the envelope to be a success. You should probably avoid pushing the envelope. Concentrate instead on constant improvement of products and presentations that have been demonstrated to increase revenues. Find out what is behind this increase and concentrate here.
If anything is worth doing, it is worth doing well. If you know there are problems with something, fix it or drop it. Don’t keep anything on life-support that is not contributing to the bottom line. If you have poor Web pages, drop them unless your site is passive, cheap, and not visibly related to your company.
The civil government is marked by old projects that are not allowed to die. It has employees in long-useless departments in long-detrimental ministries. Civil government cannot bring itself to let anything die. This is a major distinction of civil government from the free market.
Perfection paralyzes. Inattention subsidizes incompetence or the appearance of incompetence. A program of customer satisfaction through constant improvement is the key to organizational success. Keep hitting stand-up singles. Home runs will occur occasionally, but do not plan your strategy in terms of them.
This article was first published here https://www.lewrockwell.com/2007/10/gary-north/perfectionism-vs-excellence/